Pad Thai to Tom Kha: A Traveler’s Guide to Food in Thailand

Taking center stage, the inimitable pad Thai (Source: iStock / RichC86)

When you think of Thailand, what comes to mind? Elephants, perhaps? Rikshaws and temples?

For us, food is always the first thought: everything from pad Thai (the real thing, not our pale American imitation) to tongue-tickling green curries and off-the-flavor-wheel treats like homok talay (seafood mousse). If at least 50% of your reason for travel is food, we recommend a journey to the Land of Smiles — and we know just where to start.

Track your tour of Thailand:

Getting there

Bangkok, Thailand’s capital city, is the best place to land and, incidentally, also a great place to explore local fare. Most international flights into the country will land at Suvarnabhumi Airport, a delightfully modern and well-lit hub just to the east of downtown. To make your life easier, take a taxi to your hotel; the cost is only a couple of dollars and saves you from having to learn the bus system.

Speaking of, we recommend booking a hotel right in downtown Bangkok. There are a ton of affordable, quality spots in the Pathum Wan District; prices range from about $70 to $150 per night and rooms in the area put you close to tons of cultural, historic, and food stops accessible by foot.

The street food of Bangkok

After settling in at your hotel, start thinking about food. Sure, you can look up top-notch restaurants (we’ll get to those shortly), but start with the classic street food of Bangkok — you know, what the locals eat. If you amble out for breakfast, keep in mind that morning eats in Thailand are decidedly savory; you won’t find many pastries around. That said, stop by Morning Rice Porridge (Congee) Shop (40 minutes by foot to the south of the Pathum Wan District) and get a milky bowl of delightful congee (boiled rice pudding) topped with an egg, green onion, ginger, and, as desired, dried shrimp.

Converted to congee (and eminently sated), spend some time people-watching at Lumphini Park to the northeast. There are also beautifully manicured gardens, a public library, and an ornate Chinese Pavilion to admire and explore, so take your time and soak it all in.

Cooks stir-fry large woks of meat and veggies in Bangkok's food stalls. (Source: iStock / aluxum)
Cooks stir-fry large woks of meat and veggies in Bangkok’s food stalls. (Source: iStock / aluxum)

When appetite hits again, head west toward the Chao Phraya River aiming for Yaowarat Road. Here, you’ll have your pick of street food, though we have a few favorites. For slurp-worthy (and pepper-tinged) bowls of rice noodles heaped with braised duck and crispy pork, check out Nai Ek. For meat on a stick (read: satay), make your way up to Hea’ Sa, where spice-coated slivers of beef, pork, and chicken are grill-fired and served with a whole array of sides, including pickled cucumbers, chiles, and an otherworldly peanut sauce. Finish it all off with some deep-friend Thai donuts from Pa Tong Go Savoey served, fittingly with coffee and sweetened condensed milk.

Stuffed with the best of Bangkok street food, work off your lunch by heading further west to the edge of the river. Here, you’ll find the Saranrom Palace Park, the much-loved Reclining Buddha statue, Museum Siam, and of course, the Grand Palace.

The ultimate fine dining

The classic Tom Kha soup leaves plenty of opportunity for innovation and embellishment. (Source: Shutterstock / Alexander Prokopenko)
The classic Tom Kha soup leaves plenty of opportunity for innovation and embellishment. (Source: Shutterstock / Alexander Prokopenko)

When dinnertime hits, you’ll be done with walking. It’s time, then, for a full-on, sit-down, fancy feast. While Bangkok has a wealth of masterfully-helmed kitchens, make the most of your adventure in Thailand by booking a table at Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin. Inside the Siam Kempinski Hotel, you’ll find the setting a feast for the eyes: intricately embroidered drapes hang from the ceiling, crowning purple chairs surrounded by teak wood and flashes of bright green. Prix-fixe and à la carte menus are available, and while you may indeed prefer to select each course yourself, we recommended giving Chef Chayawee the reins. He’ll treat you to the likes of Cappuccino Tom Kha (coconut soup), Foie Gras with lemongrass sauce, and Wagyu Beef with sesame butter. A sumptuous feast at Chayawee’s hands runs a little over $100, so why not indulge?

Dinner conquered, grab a taxi and head to Tep Bar where herb-infused whiskeys and live entertainment await. Trust us; there’s no better way to end your first night in Thailand.

Off to Chiang Mai

While you could stay in Bangkok for your entire trip and just eat your way through the city, we advise exploring more of the dynamic country — specifically, the northern city of Chiang Mai. It’s not exactly close; a train ride requires several transfers and will take upwards of 12 hours. But, if you can secure a flight (only about $60 roundtrip), you can be there in an hour. Flights depart from Bangkok’s international airport and land in the well-maintained Chiang Mai International Airport. A 10-minute taxi ride will get you into downtown.

Hotels are cheap in Chiang Mai (running as little as $50/night for a quality property), but you can also just make this a day trip. In either case, you’ll wanted to spend most of your time downtown.

Street food in Chiang Mai

First things first: food. Head to the market just northwest of downtown and you’ll find a slew of street food stalls waiting for you to indulge. Stop number one must be Cat Graffiti, hawking, among other delectable, Thai fried chicken. Dotted with umami-esque sesame, it’s a whole world better than anything the Colonel offers. Next up: Brown Café, just a few stalls over, where you can satisfy your sweet-tooth cravings; creams, custards, and jellies have never been so lust-worthy. Boba tea is definitely a thing here, so before you depart, grab your own for sipping as you walk.

Everything from spiced minced beef to pad see ew are on offer in Chiang Mai. (Source: Shutterstock / Sitthipong Pengjan)
Everything from spiced minced beef to pad see ew are on offer in Chiang Mai. (Source: Shutterstock / Sitthipong Pengjan)

For an escape from the hordes that swell the market, grab a taxi and head east to Tanita Coffee House. Grab a perch in the wood-wrapped lounge and admire the many intricately carved golden figurines while you sip on the house special: a Tanita Almond Coffee. You can go rogue and simply order a cappuccino, but you came all this way…

One thing you’ll definitely appreciate, regardless of your order: The artistry of every drink, gilded with well-crafted designs and Baroque flourishes. You won’t find this kind of mastery at Starbucks.

A bit of local history, too

Don't leave Chiang Mai without a stop at the temple of Wat Cheda Luang. (Source: Shutterstock / Take Photo)
Don’t leave Chiang Mai without a stop at the temple of Wat Cheda Luang. (Source: Shutterstock / Take Photo)

Yes, you’re in Thailand for the food, but there’s too much history to be ignored. Since you’re already in Chiang Mai, be sure you head back into the center of town to admire the Wat Cheda Luang, a Buddhist temple compound build in the 15th century. Perhaps most impressive is the figure of the Emerald Buddha at the temple’s center, dating back to 1468. Take some time to reflect on how much has happened since the 15th century and how small you actually are in the big, wide world. Then, take some pictures.

Last eats in Thailand

You’ve already done the fine dining thing, so go easy on the wallet and sample some local gems worth their weight in peanut sauce. As a perfect closer to your culinary exploration of Thailand, consider an evening meal at Nun’s Restaurant — modest, but oh-so-authentically delicious. Veggies are plentiful, the curries are beyond reproach, portions are generous, and the welcome is heart-warming. A couple of dishes definitely worth the calories: Chicken in coconut milk (a vaguely sweet, rib-sticking treat); Pad Thai lightly tossed in peanut sauce, brimming with carrots, onions, egg, and bean sprouts; silky rice noodles wound with bok choy; and, for a moderately healthy dessert, Sliced Mango and condensed milk.

Sliced mango, on its own or drizzled with sweetened condensed milk, is a popular dessert in Thailand. (Source: iStock / ansonmiao)
Sliced mango, on its own or drizzled with sweetened condensed milk, is a popular dessert in Thailand. (Source: iStock / ansonmiao)

If you don’t already have a travel companion, grab a friend from the restaurant and head to THC Rooftop Bar where you can sit in low-light bliss, sip a fruity cocktail, savor the Reggae, and share all that Thailand has given you.

Hungry for more? There’s plenty we didn’t touch on. Check out some of Thailand’s famous floating markets here. We also recommend taking a gander at the Thailand tourism website, where you can find information on countless cultural sites, outdoor adventures, and festivals — not to mention highlights of the best food in Thailand.